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The Letters by Fiona Robyn

After reading a couple excerpts on the author’s website, I was curious to see what happened next. The novel jumps out of the gate from the first sentence “Violet bursts from her lover‘s house and leaves the door gaping like a mouth.”. Which is a much catchier beginning than, say, “Call me Ishmael.”
Violet is a middle-aged, divorced English woman who impulsively moves to a seaside town when she sees the sea “…glinting as if the stars had all fallen out of the sky and were bobbing about in the water.”. She is remote from her daughters, but forgiving of her obnoxious son. She is self-involved to the point of tuning out other people when they are talking, impatient and a bit aimless. I couldn’t decide if I liked Violet or not.
Mysteriously, she begins receiving letters from a pregnant teen named Elizabeth written to a school friend, Bea, dating from 1959. Elizabeth is in a “sin bin”, a home for unwed mothers run by nuns and seems like a sensible girl. She is in many ways more grounded than Violet. Her roommate at the home, Doll, is a victim of incest, but the other girls are slow to pick up on the obvious signs. I wonder if teens today would be quicker? Such is Violet’s self absorption that she is more irritated by than curious about the correspondence.
The last third of the book has greater depth, as does Violet herself, when we learn about her friendship with Theresa and the impact it has on her life. It would’ve been more natural to have introduced Theresa earlier in the novel and watch the friendship grow over time. That’s one of the few flaws in the book. There was some subtle humor; one of my favorite incidents involved a little ghost on Hallowe’en. The author has a keen eye for feline behavior and Blue, the cat appeared often enough to make me smile. The letters from Elizabeth, in a different font size and style, pop up every few chapters but never to the point of annoyance.
Nothing much happens in the story, which will bother some readers, but those familiar with Barbara Pym and Maeve Binchy will be more used to it. However, it’s a great character study, we really get inside Violet’s head. The author does an excellent job of describing people, places and moods, this is her strength. But I think more events and interactions would make her work even better. In this book, it added to Violet’s emotional disengagement, so maybe it was intentional. In any case, I look forward to seeing more of this author’s wonderfully descriptive writing in the future.

Snowbooks 2009 303 pp. ISBN 978-1-906727-07-9

Fiona Robyn’s second book The Blue Handbag will be published by Snowbooks in Summer 2009.

6 comments on “The Letters by Fiona Robyn

  1. Moira
    March 2, 2009

    I wonder why the author didn’t introduce Theresa earlier? Presumably she must have had a reason for it.

    I think I may be one of the people who would be bothered by the lack of anything much in the way of ‘happening’. Bit of a ‘enough of the evocative writing and get on with the story’ girl myself …

    You may all yell ‘Philistine!’ at once, if you wish.

  2. rosyb
    March 2, 2009

    So, do the letters themselves make up part of the book or are they referred to or in snippets? Just wondering how the structure works. I like the sound of the not-totally-sympathetic Violet as a main character. Bit confused as to the characters here – is Theresa a character in the present? How does Violet meet her?

  3. Lisa
    March 2, 2009

    I’ve noticed this book on various blogs, so I was curious to see your review, Jackie. Interested to read that Violet is distant with her daughters, but forgiving of the ‘orrible son. Curious to know why. I hadn’t realised there was humour in this novel. In fact, it sounds very different to how I imagined. Interesting review.

  4. Jackie
    March 2, 2009

    Yes, Theresa is a character in the modern day, she lives in the seaside village, too.The author seems to group certain incidents/characters altogether, rather than spreading them through the book. For instance, there’s a lot about her son & his activities in the early part of the book & then he sort of fades. I’m not sure if this is an intentional part of her style or not.
    The letters are presented in their entirety, usually at the beginning of chapters, we get the sense of Violet reading them as they arrive & this is when they show up in the book.
    Lisa, the humor is subtle, little things to make you smile, such as the ghost or a comment about Blue the cat or a neighbor. It’s a nice touch.

  5. Pingback: One Night Stanzas » Blog Archive » Procrastination Station #28

  6. Jacqui C
    March 8, 2009

    I like the idea of the MC not being too sympathetic and also that she is middle aged – not sure about.

    I’m looking forward to reading this one.

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This entry was posted on March 2, 2009 by in Entries by Jackie, Fiction: general, Fiction: women's and tagged , , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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